The Achievement Gap: Am I Part of the Problem?

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I have a confession: I am helping to widen the achievement gap.

To the education reformers who run the Washington, D.C., schools and populate our city’s think tanks, this sounds like heresy. Closing the achievement gap—the yawning difference in academic performance between low-income, minority children and their high-income, white peers—is a mantra that is as close to gospel as you can get in the secular realms of education reform.

As a Teach For America alumnus and co-founder of an educational program for low-income kids in rural Mississippi, I have spent most of my adult life working actively to close the achievement gap. So why am I now, in my mid-30s, widening the gap?

I did not intend to do so, I promise. But I became a parent, and suddenly I find that I cannot help myself—not only am I contributing to the problem every day, I am having fun doing it.

How? By being an active, involved dad (who happens to be white). Like many of my peers, I spend as much time as I can with my two daughters (ages 3 and 1). I rearrange my schedule to be sure that I can wake them up in the mornings and cook dinner with them at night. My wife and I plan weekends full of educational activities such as camping trips or visits to the Smithsonian.

And, of course, we read, read, read. Our floors are awash with the works of Sandra Boynton, Mo Willems, and other titans of children’s literature, and our girls are learning to sit quietly, turn pages, and respond actively to words on a page. They are growing up in a word-rich environment where learning is a part of everyday life.

As a result, by the time they hit kindergarten, our daughters—who, like their parents, are white (and thus on one end of the achievement-gap spectrum)— may literally be years ahead of some of their peers, especially children growing up in low-income households who may hear hundreds fewer words each day. By kindergarten, the achievement gap is already in place, and parents like me are at least partly to blame. Parents, not teachers (no matter how effective), are the single most important educational influence in a child’s life. And that means that parents are also part of the reason for the achievement gap.

The real problem is not that low-income students are not achieving as well as whites; it's that too many of them are not achieving well, period.

This reality raises a difficult question for parents who are dedicated both to their families and to the social goal of educational equity: How do we avoid becoming part of the problem we are committed to combating?

As our kids reach school age, that theoretical question becomes concrete in a hurry: Where do we send them to school? The District of Columbia public schools (which I attended as a kid) have made great strides in recent years, but the sad fact is that far too many of them still offer, in former Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s words, a “crappy education.” Those of us who have taught in (or attended) poorly run schools know how dismal and dispiriting they can be. I would not want to subject my children to such schools. So where should I send them?

Many conscientious parents reconcile this dilemma by searching out public school districts or charter schools that share our commitment to high academic achievement for all students. In the Washington area, that might mean choosing a high-performing charter school such as E.L. Haynes (if you can get in) in the city or a diverse public school in nearby Montgomery County, Md., or Fairfax County, Va. Other parents follow President Barack Obama’s example and avoid public schools altogether, claiming that we do not want to “sacrifice” our children for our political beliefs.

But as we make those choices, we do so knowing that we are exercising power that many parents do not have. It also means that we are doing what well-off families have done for ages: avoiding public schools we do not like and instead choosing schools that share our values and/or protect our children from the mediocrity that the masses must endure. Recognizing that reality should add a healthy dose of humility to the education reform movement.

I realize that by helping my daughters succeed academically I am indirectly contributing to the achievement gap, and thus I am part of the “problem.” But perhaps our definition of the “problem” is wrongheaded. Our well-intentioned obsession with the “achievement gap” implies an unending comparison between white students and minority students. That obsession has the inadvertent and pernicious effect of always measuring minority kids against the (white) standard, as if they cannot be measured on their own merits or against race-neutral standards of mastery. The real problem is not that low-income students are not achieving as well as whites; it’s that too many of them are not achieving well, period.

Instead of focusing on the “gap,” we should embrace a different goal: helping all students, regardless of their backgrounds, reach their full academic potential—and investing the resources (human and financial) we need to make that a reality. Then, perhaps, parents will not have to move in order to give their kids a high-quality education.

Vol. 30, Issue 20, Page 29

Published in Print: February 9, 2011, as Am I Part of the Problem?
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